From pretty maps to obscure lore, as much as we get into the game of DnD, we also like to get lost in the worlds we play in. But where do those worlds come from? Today, we’re taking a look at world-building.
What is world-building?
Anyone who’s ever played Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s gate is familiar with the Forgotten Realms. WoTC have released tons of content based in these worlds, and over the years have fleshed out the little things – the towns, their history, cultures, maps, why everyone hates Luskan, all the way down to the name of the tavern over in the Protector’s Enclave. World-building is the process of taking that big, empty map, and filling it up, not just with towns and mountains, but with the life and stories that bring them to life. But what about your world?
The DM’s best friend
World-building is a lot of work. A LOT. But it’s both fun in and of itself, and super helpful for making your game better. World-building helps you describe the amazing, scary, beautiful and strange world that your players want to explore. Even more importantly, unless you railroad the hell out of your players (P.S. Don’t), it prepares you for when they inevitably say “Fuck the main storyline, let’s check out that pretty mountain over there”.
Players love exploring. Even more than that, they love thwarting their DM. They live for it. By creating the entirety of the world around them, from characters and traditions to calendars and events, you prepare yourself for when the story doesn’t go exactly as expected. It gives you a lot more information on hand that you don’t need to pull out of thin air. It also means that instead of coming up with things on the fly, you can respond to almost anything that happens with “how does that fit into what’s already there?” Trust me, it saves a lot of stress, and can lead to some pretty crazy outcomes that you definitely wouldn’t have come up with on your own. And your players will love it when even you get excited.
Involving your players ( MY IMMERSIONNNNNN! )
As a player, watching your DM scramble to figure out what’s in that forest they were sure was far too ominous for you to ever go in (when, obviously, that’s exactly where you went) is like hitting a loading screen in the middle of an rpg. Worse, it’s like experiencing lag in real life.
On the other hand, when your players know they can pretty much throw a dart at a map and go there, and they will find strange and wonderful things (even if they rolled a 1, missed the map and buggered off to the edge of the world), they get a lot more invested in the world, and enjoy the game that much more.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the larger parts of the map as well. The individual characters, their backstories and circumstances, towns’ weird ghost stories and strange architectures all make your players fall more in love with your world, get more immersed in it, and make the stories more detailed and memorable. Entire campaigns can be made with single NPC’s getting loved by the party that meets them. (My first party adopted the bar wench at the first town and kept her along all the way to the final boss fight. Also look up “Pumat Sol” on Youtube ) Between the big and the small, there are dozens of ways to make your world feel more real.
Brick by brick
Everyone has their own process for world-building, but they’ll all agree on one thing – take it one piece at a time. Making the world map? Focus on one town at a time. Making a town? Take it one street/building/alley at a time. Some people sculpt the world around their story, some people sculpt the story around their world – but as soon as you get started, you’ll find yourself going and going.
I do have a few tips and tricks, collected from myself as well as a few other DM’s.
- Check places like reddit or the giantitp forums for ideas. r/worldbuilding has a questionnare that will get you to answer a lot of questions you’d never think to ask.
- Always ask yourself “why?”. “Why does the volcano burn blue?” “Why is there a tower on that mountain?” “Why are those villagers terrified of goats?” Answering the why usually tends to lead to a lot of “who”‘s and “what”‘s and “how”‘s
- Draw inspiration from the real world. It’s easy to tell your players “there’s a hill on the side of the mountain”, but have you ever really looked at a hill on the side of a mountain? there’s a lot more detail there than you’d think, and a lot that can be directly impactful to your players, and a lot more to describe to really paint the pictures in their heads.
- REALLY draw inspiration from the real world. More than just actual landscapes and buildings, you can get a lot of concepts and ideas from completely unrelated ones in the world. A lot of maps I’ve used were inspired by the shadows of water spills on my glass table. A lot of real world events can be used to inspire your world’s politics.
- Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on one aspect of the world. If you find yourself focusing too much on the maps and towns, take a step back and look at the people and their traditions, or the economy and history.
- Check for official resources. There are many map books, terrains and guides you can buy online.
- Use your players. Before your session zeros, your players will have a lot of ideas and questions that could give your world more depth in ways that directly affect your players and interest their characters. (My current PC is a former slave, which got my DM thinking about how and where his world could include slavery before we started)
There are a lot of other tricks that you will pick up as you go as well – more than anything, the more you do, the better you’ll get. With time, some patience, some brainstorming with your players and a lot of reading, you’ll turn your world into a unique land that your players won’t just explore, but get truly lost in.
Your only limit is your imagination.